READING FOR CHILD
AND YOUTH CARE WORKERS
Like a Duck to Water
I woke suddenly, bright sunlight streaming in through the canvas walls. Paul was already up, struggling to pull on his socks at the far end of the tiny tent. He grinned at me as I sat up in my sleeping bag. ‘Morning. Some of the boys are already up.’
From the noise they made last night I’d have thought some of them never went to bed!’
‘Put the kettle on, Dave,’ called Paul.
I put my head out of the tent doorway and watched as big Dave moved over to the water container. He raked the embers of the fire, dropped a few twigs onto the sparks and kindled the flame.
‘Be about ten minutes,’ he shouted.
He’s been a great kid this week,’ I said, inclining my head towards Dave. ‘Really taken to the hills.’
We crawled out of the tent and stood looking down on the lake which lay a few hundred yards below us. In the fragile heat of early summer it shimmered like a million broken bottles. In a few hours, I thought, the place would be full of canoeists and swimmers from the Outdoor Pursuits Centre further down the valley. But now it was still and untarnished — as it should be.
Dave called that the tea was ready and we moved across to the fire. He poured out three mugs and we sat in silence, gazing at the lake. Presently, Dave picked up a twig and began to idly poke at the fire. ‘What are we doing today?’ he asked.
‘Nothing much. We’re treating it as a rest day. After walking the Horseshoe yesterday we thought you’d all like an easy session. We’ll probably go down to the beach later on. After Brian arrives.’
* * *
We had been in North Wales for just over a week. It had been a hectic but enjoyable time — rock climbing, hill walking with the occasional educational visit thrown in for good measure. As always when we were away from the Assessment Centre the boys had been perfect.
In particular, big Dave. Back at the Centre he had always seemed a misfit — a gentle giant, always too clumsy for comfort, his large face too lined and angular for his age. But here he had found his true vocation. He took to the hills like an Alpine guide. He was not a good rock climber, seeming to fight his way up the rock rather than use it for his own ends. But at hill walking he was supreme. He seemed to have a feel for the mountains and covered the miles with great efficiency and skill.
‘What time is Brian due?’ Dave asked, suddenly. ‘We don’t really know,’ said Paul. ‘He finished his course yesterday so he could get here any time. He’s hitch hiking down.’
Dave sighed. ‘He should have a letter for me from Jane. She said she’d write last week but nothing came before we left.’
‘Still going up to Manchester to see her next week?’ Dave nodded and grinned. ‘If I can get enough money. I’ve saved all my pocket money for the last few weeks but I’m still a few quid short.’
‘Don’t go bunking the train,’ I said ‘Or you’ll be in trouble with the law again. And it’s Detention Centre next time, you know.’ Dave grunted but said nothing.
‘You can clean my boots if you like,’ Paul commented, raking up the fire to brew more tea. ‘I’ll give you fifty pence for it.’ He was joking, but Dave was more than willing to do anything which would help him get the money he needed. A quick scout around all the staff for jobs produced only a pound.
Then Dave had an idea. ‘Tell you what. I’ll bet you all fifty pence each that I could run up that hill without stopping.’ He pointed at the long, high ridge which overlooked us. From where we sat it must have been a good eight hundred feet to the top, and although it was covered with grass it was exceptionally steep. We had walked it only a day or so before, and it had left us breathless and winded.
‘Don’t be bloody silly,’ said Paul. ‘You’d never do it.’
‘Of course I could,’ retorted Dave. ‘Come on, fifty pence each. I’ll run it, no trouble.’
We talked it over and decided he would be lucky to reach half way.
Dave had never been particularly strong on sticking to his guns; we knew he would give up before he hurt himself. And if, by some miracle, he did manage it, then the poor devil could do with the money.
‘O.K.’ I said. ‘But if you stop just once then the deal is off.’
He grinned and disappeared into his tent. The other boys and staff had appeared by now and sat excitedly waiting for their unexpected treat. In a few minutes Dave was back, dressed in gym shorts and a rugby jersey.
‘See you later,’ he said and ran down the track which led to the floor of the valley. ‘He’ll never make it,’ said someone. And what if he hurts himself?’
No-one answered. We sat watching his progress.
Presently he reached the foot of the ridge, turned to wave to us and then started up the slope. Slowly, inch by inch, Dave moved upwards. He had learned his hill craft well. In wide zig-zag arcs he traversed the ridge, moving back and forth across our field of vision.
Across and across he went but always upwards, ever upwards.
‘He’s having a bloody good go at it!’ We watched, each of us trying to imagine the searing agony of breath as it rasped up his chest; the bone shuddering jolt of his feet as they slapped like wet fish up and down upon the ridge. It didn’t take the greatest intellect in the world to work out he must be going through hell up on the side of that hill.
‘Rather him than me,’ commented Paul, shaking his head.
* * *
Suddenly I heard a shout from the road below. Dropping my eyes to the roadway I saw Brian coming rapidly up the hillside towards us. We waved and, shortly, he joined us.
‘You’re early,’ said Paul. ‘We didn’t expect you until later this morning.’ We explained what was happening, why we were waiting with our eyes glued to the ridge. Brian sat down with us to watch Dave’s progress.
‘I’ve got a letter for him in my bag,’ he said. ‘Manchester postmark.’ While we had spoken, Dave had passed the halfway point and was still going strong. His movements were not so fluid, perhaps, and occasionally he missed his footing or stumbled in a hollow. His speed had dropped considerably and he was now going no faster than a brisk walk, but there was no denying that each second took him closer to the top.
A light breeze had sprung up. That, at least, would help to cool him. God knows he’d need it, I thought, he must be sweating blood up there.
‘He’s going to make it,’ I said. And he did. A few minutes later Dave stood triumphant on the top of the ridge. He sank to his knees and remained there for several long minutes. I could imagine how he felt. At last, he slowly straightened, turned to face us and waved once. Then, carefully, painfully, he began to come down.
‘I’d never have believed it!’ said Paul.
‘Give him credit,’ I said, ‘He really must be desperate for that money.’
‘Desperate to see the girl friend, certainly,’ interjected Paul.
* * *
When Dave finally arrived back he was exhausted. His breath came in shuddering great gasps while his legs buckled, shook as if they were rubber. He collapsed alongside the fire and, for a long time, lay with his eyes tightly shut.
Finally, he sat up and grinned, eyes large and expectant in that elongated face.
‘I did it,’ he gasped. ‘Pay up!’ We paid, dutifully. Then he saw Brian and smiled.
‘Finally got here, did you? Any letters for me?’ Brian passed across a brown envelope. ‘Sealed with a loving kiss, Dave,’ he said. We brewed tea while Dave read his letter. The other boys went off for their morning swim in the lake while we exchanged small talk with Brian.
Then, suddenly, Paul touched my knee and motioned towards Dave. He was sitting, staring across at the ridge he had just climbed. The letter had fallen from his hand and lay, useless, at his feet.
‘What’s the matter, Dave?’ He looked up, startled, and gazed across — not at me, not at any of us — through us, perhaps, but not at us. Tears began to well up on his lower lids.
'It’s Jane. She’s finished with me. Her Dad says she can’t see me any more.'
We sat in silence, watching his agony. None of us knew what to say, how to ease his hurt. A premonition of disaster, a strange feeling of fear and failure, had suddenly descended over the camp site.
Then, in one swift, decisive movement, Dave leapt to his feet and started down the slope towards the lake. Brian made to go after him.
‘Leave him,’ I said. ‘He isn’t going far.' We watched as he walked unsteadily down the hill, strangely out of place in his shorts and rugby jersey. He stopped and sat at the water’s edge, an empty, forlorn figure with the morning breeze whipping his hair.
And the letter he had dropped began to flutter in the wind; its pages ruffled and finally tumbled away one by one. Like lost dreams they spiralled in the sky, outlined against the ridge.